Part of: Forget-Me-Not

Interview: Julie Verhoeven

published on 3 April 2002

SHOWstudio Editor Penny Martin interviews illustrator Julie Verhoeven, examining her career in general and the Forget-Me-Not project in particular.

SHOWstudio Editor Penny Martin interviews illustrator Julie Verhoeven, examining her career in general and the Forget-Me-Not project in particular.

Illustrator Julie Verhoeven

Penny Martin: Can you tell me a bit about your background?

Julie Verhoeven: I was born in Sevenoaks in Kent in 1969, the year man landed on the moon. I grew up in Kent and moved around about three times. I was at a girls' school. It was fine but you know... I was desperate to leave school.

My dad was a graphic designer in a graphics company in London, and my mum was an illustrator. My dad's work was a little more corporate. The clients they had were Black and Decker and London Buses. He did the poster you see on the buses where it has a pick-pocket: 'watch out for pick pockets and suspect packages'. My mum's work was more pen and ink. She started off working for Decca records but she got sacked from everywhere. After she had children, she went back to work first of all at Woolworths and then eventually she got another drawing job for a local health company. She worked on lots of brochures, on various diseases and things but with quite nice drawings.

Penny Martin: So you were aware of graphic design as a potential job from an early age?

Julie Verhoeven: Oh yeah, my brother and I were discouraged from doing anything art-related because they just knew we wouldn't make money and it would be difficult. My brother's a painter.

Penny Martin: But you went headlong into it?

Julie Verhoeven: Couldn't do anything else. I was the first person who'd been to an art school after leaving our school. Soon it looked like I was going to do fashion, which was considered to be a bit more sensible. I wanted to do a foundation but you had to be 18 to do a foundation, so I went to do this fashion diploma at a college called Medway. Now it's Kent Institute. Like everybody, I wanted to go to St Martin's to do BA fashion. I didn't get in, so I ended up getting a work placement at John Galliano's in 1987.

Penny Martin: How did that happen?

Julie Verhoeven: There was an ex-student from the college who was there at that time, so she just contacted the college saying we need help' and the tutor recommended me because I hadn't got a place. It was fantastic, I arrived for the Rose collection which was really nice.

Penny Martin: What was your role at John Galliano?

Julie Verhoeven: For first year and a half I was doing plebby jobs, you know run around. I was still going to drawing classes in the evening. Then I applied again to go to St Martin's and didn't get in again. Then I was like 'right, I'm going to stay' and it worked out fine. I was designing, just doing a bit of everything; mainly print designs actually, t-shirts, any artwork basically. It was nice because I was the first design assistant that he officially took on.

Penny Martin: Can you describe the working process at John Galliano?

Julie Verhoeven: I learnt everything really working there. At the beginning of the collection, John would spend a couple of weeks in the library, you know, London College of Fashion or the V&A, and I'd go with him to carry the books and do some photocopying. That was fantastic, I loved research and that was why my work is so heavily research-based. It would be, I'd say ten days to two weeks research. At that time I didn't realise what a feat that was in the fashion business. People just don't do it or they'll do it for a couple of days, or they'll get someone else to do it.

We'd come back, then John would start sketching frantically and I might get little bits to work on, drawings to re-draw, which was crazy because his drawings were gorgeous anyway. Pen and ink, scratchy, it was fantastic. And then prints. He had different lines, 'Galliano's Girl' and the t-shirt one, motif stuff and backdrops.

Penny Martin: For the shows?

Julie Verhoeven: More a sort of showroom, because at that time he was doing quite traditional shows, quite plain. To start with, we were based in Chiltern Street, Covent Garden, and then it moved to a tiny room above a theatre. When he got more money, it moved to New Kings Road. At that time John was going out with Jasper Conran and Jasper offered me his basement flat, so I was living there in Regents Park, which was very nice.

Penny Martin: How did your own work develop?

Julie Verhoeven: I was still attending evening classes at St Martin's but they were in Southampton Row at that point, and I did drawing evening classes for about five years. They were fashion drawing classes held by Howard Tangye, who was great. I also did life drawing classes at Morley Adult College.

Penny Martin: Which areas of your practice did you feel you needed to develop?

Julie Verhoeven: Drawing the figure. I knew I was reaching nowhere near my potential. You draw and you never stop. When you do stop drawing, you tend to regress, so there was an urgency. I knew I just had to keep it up in order to see any improvement.

Penny Martin: What were your sources at that time?

Julie Verhoeven: The last thing I'd look at would be fashion drawing. There was real lull for quite a while.

Penny Martin: Do you think the use of illustration declined during the 1980s?

Julie Verhoeven: Yeah, oh definitely. It was that 'one minute you like it and then five years down the line you hate it'. That cycle thing is really fascinating. I remember not particularly liking all the 1950s drawings or before that... I used to think were hideous. You just don't know why, it just doesn't feel right at the time. I find that really frightening because of course the same applies to your own work.

Once you start delving into it, every imaginable artist had their drawer of erotic drawing. It's really fascinating. The whole thing felt really self indulgent, because drawing bodies, it's nice.

Penny Martin: How long did you work with John?

Julie Verhoeven: Four years. I was there from the age of 18 to 22. It began to be a bit of a merry-go-round, like fashion is. It's season after season, it becomes a bit predictable. I knew exactly what I would be doing and when I'd be doing it. In '91/'92, I thought I would try and make a career of drawing, work freelance.

That's when I started loads of teaching, traveling everywhere to Croydon, Barnet, Harrow, Medway where I studied, teaching about three days a week. That was really exciting because you get feedback. And then I did quite a lot of work for Jasper Conran, a lot of theatre projects. We did My Fair Lady, so I did about a hundred and forty costume drawings for that. It was a lot of work. There's a kind of cycle that I seem to go through with my work. I get to the point of complete frustration and I have to do something different. I decided that I needed to get another design job, so I went to Paris, and then I got a job at Martine Sitbon in 1993.

Penny Martin: Is there a difference between the Parisian system and the one in London?

Julie Verhoeven: It wasn't that different because at that time, it was quite disorganised and it was very small. Again, you would do a bit of everything. That suited me. With Martine you had design research, then just week upon week of actual designing.

Penny Martin: Where were the equivalent research centers to the ones you used in London?

Julie Verhoeven: I would go to the library at the Pompidou and to the Bibliotheque Forney, which was good, but none of them compared to London it has to be said. That was absolutely frustrating, but maybe that was partly because the language was very difficult.

Penny Martin: Can you describe how you initiate your own designs?

Julie Verhoeven: I do about three days in the library. The school where I'm teaching, I've got access to all the London Institute libraries, which are great. Partly I use it as a safety net, but I feel that I have to do it even though sometimes it's not really necessary. It's quite random really. Sometimes I'll go down an aisle that I've never been down before and just plunge in.

Penny Martin: So do you photocopy parts and take them home and then work?

Julie Verhoeven: Yeah. I'm an absolute fire hazard. They're all filed. Well, stuffed in boxes. Originally, it should have been like sketch book stuff but then obviously it never happens and I'll come back with masses of photocopies. I'm quite happy because they are in some sort of order, and then they go back right to the beginning. I can think 'oh yeah, at that time I was looking at such and such'. I draw from them, copy them. That's quite a recent thing actually, drawing from a photograph of somebody. It took me a while to stop drawing from life, I was so 'I have to draw from life otherwise the drawing is no good'.

Penny Martin: What instilled that standard in you?

Julie Verhoeven: I still believe it's correct. I couldn't have drawn from a photo years ago and given it any passion if you like, or given it my own angle. If I hadn't done all that life drawing they would have been flat and rubbish. I also hated the idea that you'd sit and draw from a photo and it would not be very engaging. You're not really thinking that hard. When you draw from life it's quite agonising and painful. Now I treat drawing from a photo the same way, I get really tense and like 'oh my god, right here goes'... You have to imagine it's breathing really. And another thing about drawing, it's the concentration level. I hate the way people think it's easy to draw, that if you can draw you can draw anything. It's agony because sometimes it happens and then it doesn't and it's really physically hard.

Once I'm on a roll, it's so rare, it's like 'oh great, how long's this going to last?' It's dreadful, a dreadful habit now that I never answer the phone. It's silly, really silly. If I'm working in a studio it's OK. My ideal is at home, you know I have to have blaring music and everything has to be just right. I work anti-social hours, I like to get up really early. I like to start about 5 o'clock. I'm much better in the morning and I slowly get worse and worse. At about 3 o'clock I'm ready for a siesta.

Penny Martin: Is there particular music that you feel you can concentrate to?

Julie Verhoeven: Yeah, it has to be really like fast and loud. Yeah, The Ramones. But it goes through cycles again, music. It goes hand-in-hand with my drawing, I can't draw in silence because I get really nervous. For this exhibition that I'm having in January 2002 called 'Fat Bottom Girls', as in the Queen song, it's my favourite forty pop songs that I'm drawing. Either the lyrics are really fab to draw, or it might be the sleeve that's inspiring.

Penny Martin: We've talked your formal research resources. Are there other popular culture sources that you use?

Julie Verhoeven: I've always loved magazines. I started with Bunty and I went to Misty, and I went to Jackie. Just 17 and then you know of course Vogue. I was fifteen when I started buying that. I'd buy pretty much any good magazine.

Penny Martin: Were there other illustrators that you admired?

Julie Verhoeven: If I think about it, Viramontez. I liked him, I liked Zoltan actually, remember him? He didn't do an awful lot but he had his moments. It would normally be fine artists. Mondigliani, Egon Schiele of course, Warhol, you know all the clichéd ones. Lately, I've been looking at cartoonists from the 50s and 60s and I'm finding a wealth of goodies.

Penny Martin: Do you work entirely freelance now?

Julie Verhoeven: Yeah, I left Martine Sitbon a year ago. I was also working for an American designer, Richard Tyler, designing dresses, because he didn't like doing them. I also worked for a Brazilian designer and that was nice, I'd go to San Paulo four times a year. I got it through my husband's brother, my husband is Brazilian.

Around a year and a half ago, I did some design work for Cacharel as well, when Clements Ribeiro started. I did a print design for them. I've done a lot of print designs for people but I don't do that anymore.

Penny Martin: All that time you were known to these agencies as a designer but recently people have come to regard you more as an illustrator.

Julie Verhoeven: Yeah, this is the problem I have. People are uncomfortable with you, you're either sort of one thing or you're another thing. For me the thing is the drawing, it's so relevant, it's absolutely crucial. I don't like to say I'm an illustrator particularly because more than half of my career has been designing. I don't want to say I'm a designer because that's not the case either, so it's kind of tricky.

Penny Martin: When do you think that started to happen, that you became very known for your drawing?

Julie Verhoeven: I think it was just over a year ago when I stopped all the design consultancies. I thought 'this is getting silly'. It was so time consuming and I thought it was time for me to concentrate on the drawing for a bit of my own, what I consider to be my own work. I wanted to do all of it but I thought I needed to do something more for myself, and it was well overdue I feel. It feels really selfish in a way.

Penny Martin: How do you keep your own approach distinct from other work you are asked to do?

Julie Verhoeven: It's evolving all the time I think, because these faces are quite new for me, because they're more flat, more Japanese in a way. I think you can see where a drawing's coming from or what, you know however simplistic it is you can judge whether there's been much thought or depth behind it, from the academic drawing side and in the subject matter, composition and proportion. It's difficult because of course there's a lot of accidental stuff, which is fantastic. That is to be encouraged, but it's getting the balance.

Penny Martin: How do you approach magazine illustration?

Julie Verhoeven: I really like working with photography. There are a lot of people who are a bit uncomfortable having the two together, you know they feel that illustration is like the poor relation, but I think they're great together. I mean but it works in the magazine's favour too, because in comparison with a photographer, you are a cheap option. I illustrate over photos on a light box, or on a white page over the photo. It's pretty primitive. I like to do quite obsessive drawings at the moment. I try to be simple but it never works. I always try and over-compensate. I would love to be minimal, I just haven't got the guts!

Penny Martin: Is it difficult to work to a very precise brief?

Julie Verhoeven: Yeah, then I seize up and do nothing. If anybody wants it re-drawn, which can happen, it's like 'oh no'. I think it's because it's such a sort of personal thing, I take it pretty personally. I try and strive to do something different every time, which often isn't what people want. Often, when they come it's like they want something that they've seen before.

Penny Martin: What do you do in that situation?

Julie Verhoeven: I always twist it. Take charge and hope that what I give is better than the one before.

Penny Martin: Many of your drawings, and I'm thinking of the ones for Self Service or the designs for Cacharel in particular, have been likened to the designs on eighteenth century ceramics or to Toile de Jouey textile designs.

Julie Verhoeven: Yeah, it was more supposed to be quite 'Holly Hobby'. Like cute patchwork.

Penny Martin: That brings us to Forget-Me-Not, the project that you've done for SHOWstudio. Can you describe the commissioning process?

Julie Verhoeven: I approached Peter Saville through a friend, and he immediately said 'oh you could do this wallpaper idea, erotic wallpaper based on Toile de Jouy'.

Penny Martin: What source material did he show you?

Julie Verhoeven: He showed me some of his book and it was really exciting. Mostly French 19th century examples and then lots of Japanese bondage books and general erotica.

Penny Martin: How do you feel working with that kind of material?

Julie Verhoeven: Yeah, great, because I like all that too. I love drawing women much more than drawing men because the form is far more exciting. Once you start delving into it, every imaginable artist had their drawer of erotic drawing. It's really fascinating. The whole thing felt really self indulgent, because drawing bodies, it's nice.

Penny Martin: Would you consider it a strict commission?

Julie Verhoeven: It was precise in subject matter, yeah. Actually, the bondage side I would never have done myself because I do find that a bit difficult on the female side. But I think that uncomfortable aspect makes quite nice work.

Penny Martin: The layers of the wallpaper darken in atmosphere as you get further through the interactive.

Julie Verhoeven: It would have been really easy for the whole thing to be quite controlled, visually. The initial layer was supposed to be very classic, but as you delve into it, it becomes more and more nasty and physical in the way it's made. I quite like that it just gets dirtier and dirtier. And also I'm quite excited about when they get really messy and nasty. Dark and wet, sort of inky. I was quite fascinated to see how it reproduced on the computer screen, because often the designy artwork on the web feels so controlled. I have absolutely no relationship with computers because I don't like that they're not tactile, so clean and cold.

Penny Martin: Would you say it's your agenda to try and make the visual image tactile, uncontrolled and disturbing?

Julie Verhoeven: Yeah, when it breaks down and gets quite distorted I quite like that.

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